Review of the Year - The Yorkshire Stage

Reporter: Mark Smith

Dateline: 31st December, 2015

Taking a personal perspective, my own theatre-going locally was strongly affected this year by the closure of the York Theatre Royal, which took effect from March and was expected to last until December under a £4.1m refurbishment plan. In May, though, the news came through of “staggering” finds during archaeological excavations, further delaying the venue’s reopening and consequently providing the rare opportunity to witness a pantomime in traverse setting with moving platforms courtesy of the temporary theatre erected at the National Railway Museum.

All this contributed towards 2015 being, for me, a year of theatre in unusual, non-theatre venues—though the NRM’s 1000-seat Signal Box theatre is hardly “unusual” any more, having been used for the large-scale community-cast show In Fog And Falling Snow and, once again, for Mike Kenny’s superlative adaptation of The Railway Children. Nor is it terribly temporary-feeling, with a lovely reception and bar area, sturdy (if cramped) seating and an impressive deployment of sound, lighting and other tech.

The same cannot be said of another venue which emerged in York in March 2015. Wittily named “The Fleeting Arms”, this was the first (to my knowledge) long-running pop-up pub arts venue in the city—at least in the last decade or so. It’s been ramshackle, full of nooks, niches, and quirks of lighting or acoustics and run by a rotating team of mostly voluntary contributors.

The venue closes in the early hours of the first of January, but in its near-year of operation it’s provided a home for community and professional arts ventures of all kinds, be they theatrical, musical or artistic.

York is a city which has done well recently for community initiatives, including York Theatre Royal’s aforementioned large-scale shows and the Arts Barge Project, with which the Fleeting Arms shares some DNA. But this was the most ambitious and open-hearted so far, drawing in all kinds of other organisations and asking only a donation to offset electricity and business rates. The Great Gatsby, which has run throughout December as a send-off to the venue, was a real highlight of the year.

Pilot Theatre is waving goodbye to artistic director Marcus Romer after twenty-two years’ service. 2015 saw the company produce strong productions with regular and new collaborators. I particularly enjoyed Outsiders, made as part of an international collaboration on migration and immigration, and A Restless Place, which was superbly staged in the York Castle Museum dungeons by talented long-term Pilot director Katie Posner.

Another growing York-based collaboration, Theatre Mill is a relatively new company worth looking out for. Their The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was an atmospheric production in the basement of York’s Merchant Adventurer’s Hall and they have a growing reputation as a producer of classic tales staged in well-chosen and unusual locations.

The news recently came in that Daniel Evans is set to end his tenure as artistic director of Sheffield Theatres after nearly seven years in charge there, in a canny appointment by Chichester Theatres. Evans’s successor is yet to be found, but the money is surely on another actor-turned-director to continue the precedent set by previous incumbents Evans, Samuel West and Michael Grandage.

Bradford’s Freedom Studios made a new appointment—or appointments—at the top, naming Alex Chisholm and Aisha Khan as co-Artistic Directors.

West Yorkshire Playhouse enjoyed another year of successful large-scale revivals and co-produced touring shows, with James Brining helming well-received versions of The Rise and Fall of Little Voice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Ellen McDougall providing adventurous re-readings of The Glass Menagerie and Anna Karenina.

Up in Scarborough, Alan Ayckbourn showed no sign of losing his deftly disguised and oddly wrong-footing, blackly satirical knack as he premiered his 79th play (but who’s counting), Hero’s Welcome. Another long-running Yorkshire treasure, Berwick Kaler, gave us the aforementioned York Theatre Royal pantomime in its temporarily relocated surroundings, which rose admirably to the challenges of the unfamiliar setting.

Other odd Yorkshire venues in which I saw shows in 2015 included churches aplenty, city council chambers, Bradford Interchange rail and bus station, various other bits of the National Railway Museum, a ballroom, and a fish and chip shop. I dare theatremakers to take me somewhere even more surprising in 2016.